Jurassic Park (SMD): Rooaaeeggaaaaarr

Part of my ongoing quest to play lots of Jurassic Park Games, this article also contains spoilers for Jurassic Park on Sega Mega Drive

Jurassic Park on Sega Mega Drive“, jam that into a shellsuit and you might have to sit down for all the early 90’s that it is emitting, but that’s just how I like my JP experiences.

With a permanent inhome location for my retro consoles (aka ‘The Retro Nook’) I decided that it was time to undertake the first platforming title in the ongoing JP exploration. Resurrecting my childhood Mega Drive II is always fun, but knowing that I now have a space to leave it permanently setup is even better. The icing on the cake has been the acquisition of a good quality shielded component cable (from retrogamingcables.co.uk … no, this is not sponsored, I just like them that much) and an OSSC line doubler gifted by the amazing Kim & Pete at LaterLevels (I cannot say Thank-you enough!). When these powers combine, they produce a magnificent and crisp image that finally matches my retro-vision memory of the console. Without wanting to disappear too far down a techtalk rabbit-hole, I also play with added scanlines courtesy of the OSSC because I genuinely think it matches more closely my own idea of how a 16-bit system should look.

This shiny new-old setup now deserved a fresh-aged experience, so I picked up the original Jurassic Park title for Mega Drive and (after a little contact cleaning) jammed it in to be greeted by a T-Rex Roaring “Sega”, those iconic park gates opening, a flash of lightning, and flickering torches, all in grimy, dithered, graphics. My JP experience so far has taught me that the Jurassic-park-ness of a game is often set, or at least telegraphed by the title screen and so far the SMD JP was performing well. The game lets the player pick between two scenarios; Alan Grant or Raptor. I opted to begin with Alan Grant, hit the start button, and watched the opening cutscene showing the tour LandCruiser being attacked by the T-Rex…

… before starting the 1st level with Alan Grant scrambling to his feet next to the upturned Jeep. Which is a kind of weird inconsistency to have right at the start of the game. It’s not like either vehicle appear later in the game to argue an efficient sprite-usage-based choice. My theory is that it may be something to do with release schedules for the movie and the game needing to coincide. The game levels feature a journey along a river and other locations not seen in the movie; but from what I remember (and it’s been a while since I read it) these locations do feature heavily in the novel. So, I don’t know, maybe the developers had a copy of the book and limited information about the movie.

Putting this to one side, JP calms down to become a fairly by the numbers platform experience by Mega Drive standards. There’s a small array of weapons that Dr. Grant can use to defend himself from the roaming dinos of Isla Nublar, although these boil down to shooty-thing or throwey-thing of varying levels of effectiveness with the majority just temporarily incapacitating our reptilian friends. Unfortunately, nothing about the player movement feels particularly smooth or responsive. It’s not that there’s anything game-breakingly bad, but it takes a little time to get used to the animation delays with different actions and Alan never looks entirely comfortable… maybe that’s just the unfolding dinosaur disaster he’s facing. One of my biggest complaints is that he automatically climbs up having grabbed on to a ledge. This is particularly annoying if you are trying to drop down to a lower platform, or want to wait for the opportune moment to pop your head up and tranq a dino. I lost a hefty number of lives falling from a platform I was trying to drop down to by making sure I fell far enough from the original ledge that Alan wouldn’t just grab it and climb back up.

The overall goal is to get back to the visitor centre by working your way through the various levels. Environments are a little generic with only the final level really evoking memories of the movie. Again, I suspect this is a result of what the designers had to work with, but in a story with so many iconic moments it’s still disappointing to see so few represented. Level design tends to lean in to a trail-and-error style of play a bit more than I was comfortable with. Leaps of faith or just dropping from platforms with no other options seemed to be quite common. There are still sections where I have no idea how I was supposed to move on without taking at least some damage. A slight saving grace is that none of the levels are very long and the password screen automatically recalls the most recent password (as long as the console remains on) so at least you don’t need to keep typing it in after every game over screen. It’s a style of play that was more common at the time so I can’t hold that too much against ol’ JP, but it nevertheless feels dated by modern standards.

River Raft Level Side Rant: It’s been a long time since I’ve played a level where the ‘rules’ for a level were this unclear. Alan Grant must navigate a small motorboat down some river rapids collecting fuel on the way. Running low on fuel causes the boat to start to chug and slowdown, but as there is no indicator telling you how much fuel is left, and as the chug is very very similar to the standard ‘chug’ that the trusty ol’ SMD is subject to whenever things get a little busy onscreen, it took me a long time to work out what was happening. On top of this some rapids you can ride down, some will send you crashing to your doom on rocks below, some rocks can be bounced off and others are insta-death, some drops are big and you’ll fall out the boat, and others are big… but not that big and you’ll stay in the boat. The whole level is one long test of trial and error with very little guidance and even stretches where it’s possible to have ‘gone wrong’ a few rapids ago, but not yet realise it. It took me most of an evening to clear.

Despite the problems however, the river raft level is kind of a highpoint as it presents something that is at least memorable. So much of the rest of the game feels forgettable by comparison; the same handful of dinosaur types sprinkled through levels with no real standout moments. Even the appearance of T-Rex is underwhelming after the first shock value of finding its head poking through a wall; use a smoke bomb to confuse it and just walk on by. The game’s final showdown takes place between Dr. Grant and a pair of raptors in the main hall of the visitor centre, although it’s less of an epic boss battle and more of a puzzle of sorts to get the dinosaur skeleton display to fall on them.

JP did at least hold my attention enough that I decided to play through the raptor campaign once the Dr. Grant credits had rolled. Weirdly the ‘plot’ here is framed as though the raptor is hunting Dr. Grant through the park and that she needs to get him out of the way to escape the park… I don’t remember any of that subtext from the source material… But then, it plays like more of a fun bonus than anything to be taken too seriously. The raptor is quick, strong, can jump huge heights and distance… oh and doesn’t take fall damage. Along with being a couple of levels shorter, this makes the raptor campaign much easier. The challenge is mostly in the pumping station level which involves some tricky jumps, but otherwise it was just a fun romp as a dino mauling park security…

… oh, apart from one ‘regular guy’ hiding in an air vent right at the end of the game. If you have played JP for SMD you will know EXACTLY who I’m talking about. Some awkward level design and bad enemy placement make this unassuming grunt almost impossible to get past. In the end I just kept blundering toward him until ol’ raptorface finally muddled her way past. I even resorted to two separate walkthroughs that couldn’t offer a better suggestion.

However, despite the amount I’ve pointed out its flaws I did enjoy the experience; albeit from a slightly strange point of view. I grew up in the 16-bit era and this was a chance to discover something new. Looking across my gaming shelf, I have precisely 14 Mega Drive titles from my youth, and that would have been considered a decent collection at the time. Receiving a new game was a rare event and JP brought back some of that “this is my new game and I’m going to enjoy it dammit!” attitude… even if it’s not that great.

Of course the final question has to be “How does it stack up as a Jurassic Park game?”. On the plus side you do step into the boots of Alan Grant and playing as the raptor is a neat bonus, but I keep coming back to that stormy title screen and the sinister intro sequence where the T-Rex attacks. That is what I wanted from this Jurassic Park game. That level of drama and excitement. The game never quite lives up to the JP promise of those opening moments and I’m left having to sadly admit that it doesn’t cut it as much as some of the other games I’ve played from a Jurassic Park standpoint. I think I’m forced to admit that it’s OK… but just OK as a Jurassic Park platformer. It pays just about enough homage to the source material to pass as a JP game, but never feels like it makes the effort to go beyond that.

… but of course there is the direct sequel, Jurassic Park Rampage Edition for Mega Drive, which I have played (rented for one weekend from Blockbuster video) that I plan to revisit. Maybe that will be the definitive JP platforming experience.

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